Any anime fan will be quick to tell you that not all anime is for kids. It’s an often-overlooked medium because of its exaggerated characters and the perception that all animation is child friendly because children’s shows use it.
Instead of trying to buck that view of anime, some shows lean into being cute and childish before pulling a 180 on their viewers. These anime shows start off looking cute but later reveal their messed-up themes and horror elements. The contrast between each show’s kawaii aesthetics creates a contrast with the story, leaving you more disturbed than you would have been if it had just been played straight.
1. Wonder Egg Priority (2021)
Wonder Egg Priority is adorable in its promotional material. Just based on the posters and teasers, you’d think it was a slice of life about four girls growing up together and figuring out their place in the world while depending on each other for emotional support. It has that K-On! feel look to it. Watch the show, however, and you’re treated to a violent slaughter fest as the girls kill monsters that reflect their deepest traumas.
The show is pointed in its criticism of how society brushes aside the concerns of young teenage girls as “not serious enough” because their concerns appear frivolous or childish on the surface. It does all this with a coat of bright colors and music that only serves to highlight how we expect young girls to be.
A quick trigger warning for anyone wanting to watch the show: one of the characters self-harms.
2. The Promised Neverland (2019)
The Promised Neverland suffers from having a disappointing second season, but overall, it’s a surprisingly dark anime that starts by showing us the idyllic life the main characters have. Believing they are orphans, the characters are grateful to live in a comfy orphanage where they’re managed by a “Mother”. Unbeknownst to them, Mother is more of a cattle farmer than a parent. Let’s leave it at that because saying more would reveal too much of the story’s twists.
3. Made in Abyss (2017)
Made in Abyss is easily one of the most disturbing and enthralling shows out there. Whereas other cute-turned-dark anime shows explore their more horrific elements as psychological horror, Made in Abyss does it as a body horror with a mix of existential dread thrown in. It also has some of the best world-building you’ll see in an anime.
The show revolves around a young girl and a robot boy that mysteriously appears in her town. Through them, we experience what life is like in a tiny civilization that’s built on the mouth of an abyss that they rely on for resources. It isn’t all sunshine and countryside living because the Abyss is filled with Eldritch horrors beyond anyone’s imagination. More horrifying than the natural terrors of the Abyss, however, are the lengths some people will go to in order to achieve their ultimate vision for humanity.
Made in Abyss is an emotional rollercoaster. It never lets you relax and become too comfortable with its non-child characters. You’re always swinging between feelings of terror, tears, and tenderness. The show also gets more messed up the further the characters go down in the Abyss but it does so in a relatively tasteful way that feels natural to the story rather than relying on shock factor the way a lot of edgy anime shows do.
4. Gakkougurashi (2015)
Gakkougurashi is a seemingly lighthearted story about a group of schoolgirls going through high school together. The fact that all the female characters look much younger than they should be just adds to how cute the entire show is. At first, it looks like the show is going to be a straightforward high school slice of life, but just before episode 1 ends, it’s revealed that the girls are actually living in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and that all of the cute stuff we see is just part of one of the characters’ psychosis.
5. Angel Beats (2010)
Angel Beats doesn’t try to hide the twist in its premise. The characters are explicitly said to be stuck in an afterlife limbo state that traps them in what appears to be a high school. While they’re there, the characters have to grow past their traumas and resolve any feelings that keep them tied to their previous life. However, they’ve also decided that it’s unfair that they’re stuck in an eternal limbo so they decide to form a rebellion against the god that put them there.
6. Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica, or just Madoka Magica, is famous for being a cute but dark anime show. It starts off as your typical magical girl show that follows high school students Madoka and Sayaka as they receive the offer every young girl who’s an anime fan has ever dreamed of – to become a magical girl.
Unlike her predecessors in the trope, Madoka is on the fence about accepting the contract and waits until another character comes to show her what life as a magical girl is really like. Faced with the horrible reality of being a magical girl, Madoka must now decide if the sacrifice is worth it to save someone she loves.
7. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (2006)
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni is an anime classic that appears to be a slow drama following the lives of four schoolgirls living in the rural village of Hinamizawa. There’s a male character who gets fawned over a little by the female characters, adding to the misleading start of the story. Right away, it starts to look like high school harem #45329. The show takes a dark turn when a mystery involving the village festival and a string of disappearances. The story is told groundhog day style with the days repeating until the characters discover all the clues.
8. Princess Tutu (2002)
Princess Tutu often gets missed in roundups like this because its horror is more subtle. The story’s darker themes can be likened to Hans Christian Anderson’s children’s stories which all seem “okay” until you actually think about them. The show has the titular character losing her identity and diving deep into Baby’s First Existential Horror material. The show also has more explicit, violent scenes. Overall, it’s going to leave you wondering what the heck you just watched.